From its start—Nate Dogg in front of Mount Rushmore and flanked by white girl dancers dressed in skimpy red, white, and blue—Chris Rock’s latest crossover effort is obvious and derivative. Nate, of course, can deliver a hook like no one else, but here he’s reduced to rhyming no-brainer observations of plot.
A similar droopiness and lack of invention pervade Head of State, which Rock co-wrote (with longtime collaborator Ali LeRoi—with whom he worked on The Chris Rock Show and the lamentable Down to Earth). He also co-produced, as well as directed. And oh yes, he stars too, as DC Alderman Mays Gilliam, a mostly well-intentioned, mostly ineffectual local organizer who becomes a tv hero when he saves an old lady and her cat from a building about to be razed by heartless contractors.
When his party’s candidates for President and Vice President die suddenly, Mays is tapped by the party’s mucky-mucks to run for President in 2004. Their reasoning is typical of self-interested career politicians: anyone who would take this gig only nine weeks before the election is doomed to lose; Mays will lose big-time, and then the stage will be set for the major mucky-muck, Senator Bill Arnot (James Rebhorn), to run and win in 2008. Mays looks a little skeptical, for a minute, and even flinches when he sees his first version of a recurring vision of his own Malcolm X-like assassination). But he soon agrees to run, for otherwise, there would be no movie.
In order to make good his plot, Arnot enlists his loyal and wily staff to run Mays’ expensive faux campaign: Martin (Dylan Baker) as manager, Debra (Lynn Whitfield) as his advisor, and, as white girl “masseuse”—every campaign must have one—wifty Nikki (Stephanie March, whose four or five lines here make her role as ADA on Law & Order: SVU look positively progressive). Their project is to smooth out Mays’ rough edges, dress him in suits, and shoot a commercial featuring white kids in the sunshine and a white lady with an apple pie. This does give Mays brief pause, but again, he goes along: these are the professionals, surely they know what’s best. That is, for all his street smarts affect, Mays is astonishingly ignorant.
Debra and Martin also come up with a canned speech for Mays to read on every occasion, extolling his love for whatever audience he’s addressing so he sounds exactly the same (and exactly like every other candidate) whether he’s addressing dairy farmers in Wisconsin, churchgoers in Memphis, or cowboys in Texas (or at least, folks in cowboy hats): he loves America and he’s proud of American values, etc. This despite the fact that, in his first public appearance, at a swank DC fundraiser, he “gets the party started,” getting the tux-and-evening-gowned crowd to electric slide to Nelly’s “Hot in Herre.” (And please, let’s agree to a moratorium on lumpy white people fo-shizzling—the joke is tired already.)
At long last (in this 95 minute movie), the campaign swings through Chicago, home of Mays’ silk-suit-wearing bail bondsman brother Mitch (Bernie Mac, so welcome here, and so underused). After they share some tender slaps and punches, older brother advises younger that, gee, maybe he should be his own person, make his own speeches, and speak his own mind. This novel idea moves Mays to turn off the teleprompter and start a call-and-response, exhorting his listeners to be mad about what’s wrong: and “That ain’t right!” is born as a campaign slogan. And, pathetically, this sounds ingenious compared to the slogan that defines his opponent, sitting Vice President Lewis (Nick Searcy): “God bless America, and no place else!”
This jumpstarts Mays’ new and improved campaign, a hiphop campaign. He trades in his blue suit and power tie for FUBU gear, starts telling it (supposedly) like it is, and gains 20 points in the polls. This looks vaguely dangerous, like he might win, so both Lewis and Arnot start running dirty tricks of the predictable sort, negative ads and appeals to racism. This is, of course, a potential goldmine for jokes by Chris Rock, the man who (long ago, it seems) concocted the ingenious, and certainly provocative, “difference between a black man and a nigger” routine. But no. Most of what goes on here is lethargic: gags based on lottery tickets, the Players’ Ball, and Sharon Stone; repeated soundtrack references to Jay-Z and DMX (mixed by DJ Quik, perhaps as markers of a wholly commercial black culture?); and explicit instructions, such as, “Politics is no place to express yourself.” You know, like mainstream movies.
To pad out the plot (and make it even more predictable), Mays is juggling two girls (two and a half if you count Nikki’s half-hearted effort to seduce him). The first is his ho of an ex-fiancée, Kim (Robin Givens, who has never been more annoying, ever). She kicked him out at film’s beginning, screaming and contorting about his lack of ambition. Now that he’s headed somewhere, she appears at all sorts of functions, disguised as a marching band member or a questioner at the Presidential Debate, planning their wedding out loud until he yells, “Security,” and a black-gloved hand swoops into frame, covers her mouth, and drags her off. One time for this routine would have been plenty, but much as The Chris Rock Show used to do, the film beats this dead horse, again and again and again.
The other girl is, of course, the good one, Lisa (Tamala Jones). He meets her at the register at a DC gas station, where she works multiple shifts. Adorable, smart, and determined, she’s his perfect First Lady. In another movie, she might even be charming and lively, but here, she’s stuck on the other end of phone conversations, with Mays whining about his loss of direction and depression. She encourages him to run his own race, as if he has blinders on, the way racehorses do. Blinders: this is, in its way, astounding advice.
When, at long last and for his own well being, Mays is counseled to quit the impossible campaign, he steps up: “You just represent yourself,” he schools the completely oblivious Martin, “I represent my whole race.” It’s a point worth remembering, but it’s also one worth pushing past. Rock has already pushed past it, and in so doing, made clear—repeatedly and with clever venom—the ongoing institutional racism that supports it. As crossover-dreamy as it is, Head of State may just grant him enough industry clout to drag it - the industry—along with him.